Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James will be posted soon.

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Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.

The Destabilizing Doors of Exit West: A Review

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photo by David Zawila via Unsplash

Reading Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed new novel, Exit West, as a window on the current global migration crisis is a mistake.  The world imagined by the Pakistani-born Hamid is not one facing a migration issue – migration is the environment in which all its characters swim.  It’s not a problem to be addressed; it is in the nature of being human.

You can draw your parallels to contemporary events.  Syria seems the most likely candidate for the unnamed Muslim country undergoing a civil war where Nadia and Saeed begin their relationship and their journey.  But the lens Hamid offers us is gauzy enough to allow the details of the place to move to the edges.  His is a land of universals and lasting truths.

51Ma6eymR0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe couple is intriguing, mostly because they never entirely connect with each other.  They meet in an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding” (3), a topic that comes to seem as relevant as advanced semiotics as the country deteriorates into conflict.  Saeed lives with his parents and is faithful in his prayers, though not militant in his beliefs.  Nadia dresses the part of a conservative Muslim girl, but she is much more independent, living on her own, willing to break with the norms she has been given.  He wants to marry her and eventually does bring her to live in his family home.  She is wary and hesitant about committing to him.

Nonetheless, they depend on one another and when mysterious doors begin to appear that transport people instantly across the world, they determine to leave together.  Their doorway leads them to the Greek island of Mykonos where they find a camp that acts as a way station before migrants leave for other places.  Eventually, Nadia makes a new friend who leads them to another door that opens the way to London, where many thousands of displaced people are beginning to collect.

The magical realism introduced into the novel by the doors adds to the disorientation of the story.  Even when we are in named places, like Mykonos and London, (and later Marin, California), the presence of the doors destabilizes what we think we know.  Hard boundaries disappear and a general anxiety grows.

In London it takes the form of a nativist backlash against the migrants.  The military and paramilitary groups push the migrants into ghettos and disconnect services.  There is violence and the threat of genocide.

Saeed and Nadia sit on a bed in the darkness and discuss “the end of the world” and whether their story will end here.

“I can understand it,” [Nadia] said.  “Imagine if you lived here.  And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”

“Millions arrived in our country,” Saeed replied.  “When there were wars nearby.”

“That was different.  Our country was poor.  We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”  (164)

That’s about as deep as the overt reflection on migration issues gets.  Of course, you feel the resonance with nativist movements everywhere, including the US.  But this is not a book that moves you to visceral reaction.  There is an ocean of understanding here for all sorts of peoples.

Understanding, yes, but never real connection.  In this world of doors, which allows people to slip away from each other so easily, the characters are always seeking something other than what they have.  Vignettes tell of parents struggling to understand children who come and go through doors, of two old men who find an unlikely common bond because of a doorway between Amsterdam and Brazil, and of an old woman in Palo Alto who sees all the changes and understands that “she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.  Everyone migrates through time.” (209)

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Mohsin Hamid

There’s a prevailing sense in the book that technology is partly to blame for the disorientation.  Drones fill the sky and we’re never sure to what purpose – benign or ill.  And people disappear figuratively into their screens as easily as they move through the doors, something that is not magical realism at all, as we all know.  Nadia and Saeed have several moments when they occupy the same space, but are miles apart because of their separate wanderings on their smartphones.

In the end there is a veil of melancholy and uncertainty over this book that matches the present mood in which so many people feel that their circumstances are limited and the old ways have failed.  Hamid offers for encouragement only the reduced dreams of Marin, the coastal California town where Nadia and Saeed end up.

Marin was overwhelmingly poor, all the more so in comparison to the sparkling affluence of San Francisco.  But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.  (195)

Here on the tail end of the Delmarva peninsula, I live on the other curved finger of American geography where the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay prevents the closed circle gesture to signify that things are okay.  Hamid exits west to the place American dreamers have always gone.  We look east here – to where our old stories emerged and to where new suns rise each day.  The longing is the same.  To know our place beneath the stars.

Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

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Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2

Strong, Resilient, Independent – the Characters of Virginia Reeves – part 3 of 3

Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, has some very memorable characters that are worth getting to know.  In previous segments of this interview we have talked about resiliency in strange times and the meaning of Alabama.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll enjoy this segment because we get down deeper into the characters that bring the book to life.  I began with a nod to the theme of electricity that pervades the book…

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Virginia Reeves

So…I’ve got an electrical problem here at the house. Can you help me with it?

[laughs] No. My go-to on the question about electricity is that one of the pieces about writing that I really love is the research process and being able to try on so many different careers and livelihoods and passions and hobbies. I also did not know that Roscoe [the main character in the book] was an electrician for quite a while. I actually wrote most of the prison scenes before I knew what it was that Roscoe had done to get there.  Which seems really strange at this point because electricity literally flows through the whole book.  When I stumbled upon that I was like, “Of course, you have Yellow Mama [the prison’s electric chair] and we have the electrified lines around the prison and all linked together.  But I was just a little blind to it for a while.  That’s often the case when the truth is right before us.

I discovered the electricity much like Roscoe did: I found a book of Faraday lectures in an old used bookstore.  Faraday is this incredible kind of fortune or storyteller and really an entertainer.  He would have these huge lectures in which he would tell huge rooms full of people about the forces of nature and do demonstrations.  I just loved the language of the mechanics of electricity.  It’s actually very lyrical and beautiful.

So I dove into the study of electricity through Faraday and then did internet searches and questioning people and double-checking my ideas.  I retained it long enough to write the book but if you ask me anything about electricity right now I think that that file has been purged and opened up to the next thing that I need to learn.   So I guess I could not solve your electrical problem.  There was a moment where I maybe could have at least guessed, but no longer

Well, you are very convincing. That really surprises me because the theme of electrification really moves through that book.

Well, thank you.  Two of the recurring questions I’ve gotten are: Am I an electrician? and How much time have I spent in prison?  I say it is a testament to the art of writing fiction that I am not an electrician nor have I spent time in prison.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Yeah, and you’re not a man and the other amazing thing about this book is how much you were able to get in our heads in a really deep way.  

Well thank you, thank you so much. I’m flattered by that. I feel like that’s the highest compliment.  As a writer I think the best stories come from character and this story started with Roscoe.  If I had stumbled upon a female that I would have been interested in I think I would have written her but we are chameleons as fiction writers and we take on the lives and voices of our different characters.  So I think of it as just an extension of that.

Then I also think I’ve always really connected with men.  As far as my personality goes, I’m part adolescent boy and 80 year old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.

One of the things you said at the end of the book was that you developed the Marie character [Roscoe’s wife] because one of your students encouraged you to spend more time with her.  It was interesting watching my wife because, as she read the book, she had a much more negative reaction to Marie than I did.  She didn’t like Marie at all.  

Marie is the most hated, for sure, of all of the characters in this book and people are very divided on Marie.  Many book clubs have lots of conversations and people hate Marie, like really loathe her.  Actually, I think I should probably start taking notes but I would say that my male readers mostly have more compassion for her than my female readers.  I adore Marie and I see Marie as resilient survivor. I don’t agree with everything Marie has done and I don’t condone her behaviors across the board…she finagles a divorce from Roscoe when he was in no place to grant her one, so there’s dishonesty there…I don’t agree with all of her actions but I see Marie as a strong, resilient, independent woman in a time when strong, resilient, independent women were not the norm.  She needed to survive.  She needed to save her son.  She needed to save her farm.

Actually, this a place where it becomes more personal, because she was much harder to take in earlier drafts and someone asked, “Who is she? Who does she remind you of? Are you basing her on anyone?”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

It took that question make me realize that I was actually basing her largely on my grandmother who lived in Alabama and got me thinking about Alabama in the first place.  My grandmother is turning 90 in October. She’s a very strong, independent, resilient woman and has suffered many tragedies in her life and when faced with tragedy she looked it in the eye and put it aside and never returned.  When I was younger I saw that as a kind of a flaw.  I saw it as cold and distant and as I’ve aged I think I see it as just her coping mechanism.  It’s survival.  It’s the only way she knows how to move through tragedy and pain.  So I gave that trait to Marie and I see her actions not coming out of a place of malice necessarily.  I mean she’s definitely angry at times, but not out of cruelty and not out of any sort of meanness but out of a need to survive in the only way she knows how.

I think that’s true and, as I said in the review, I felt like some of your best writing was in the chapters where you were trying to flesh her out. I think I would’ve had a really negative reaction without those chapters, too, because the longer you stay in prison you wonder “Well, where is she and what’s going on?”

Exactly, and early drafts of the book were all from Roscoe’s point of view and he didn’t have any sense of what’s going on with Marie.  She existed only by her actions and that was where a trusted great reader said, “What do you think about spending a little time outside of prison and letting us know what’s happening and letting us get to know Marie a little bit so that we don’t just loathe her completely?” and that was very, very good advice.

I also liked the visions of Marie that Roscoe has that got him through in a way. I thought that was really insightful in the way that we use people to think—the way that we use the idea of people to get a us through.

Yeah that’s very well said. I love that idea that we conjure creations of people to help us through.

A Border with No Country: A Review of All the Pretty Horses

 

IMG_6614“This is still good country.

Yeah.  I know it is.  But it aint my country.…

Where is your country? he said.

I don’t know, said John Grady.  I don’t know where it is.  I don’t know what happens to country.” (299)

Not counting the movies of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, it has taken me all my adult life to get to Cormac McCarthy.  Now that I’m out in West Texas for a spell, it seemed like a good time to see what all the fuss has been about.  Like John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, I’m saddling up today to head towards the border.  They make good companions.

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_All the Pretty Horses is the first of three McCarthy books that are known as The Border Trilogy.  It won the National Book Award in 1992.  It’s cinematic front story is about Cole and Rawlins, two San Angelo teenagers in 1949 Texas who set out on horseback to look for ranching work in northern Mexico.  They are joined early on by a younger boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and who rides a really fine horse.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures they lose Blevins, find work, and are establishing themselves a valuable members of a massive ranch.  Cole and Rawlins have an innate sense for working with horses and they have particular success with a group of wild horses brought down from the mesa to be broken.  In the meantime, Cole begins a forbidden romance with the patrón’s daughter, Alejandra – an act that eventually leads to the two being dragged off to prison, where they are brutalized and eventually freed.

I’ll save the spoilers for the last act of this drama, but suffice it to say that McCarthy presents all this with spot-on dialogue that crackles with life and even humor.  (I did not expect to come to this book for the laughs, but they are definitely there.)  You also got the blood.  That was as advertised.

Behind the action is a more brooding, philosophical work that comes through most prominently in Cole’s interactions with the Dueña Alfonsa, the cultured grandaunt of the hacienda who guards the virtue of her goddaughter, Alejandra.  Alfonsa and Cole muse on choice and fate, society versus the individual, and the nature of home.  Alfonsa discerns in the Spanish (and Mexican) soul “a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed.  Virgins, bulls, men.  Ultimately God himself.” (230)

No one lives this out more than Cole himself.  If this is the standard, he becomes a true Mexican.  But this is also a meditation about home and Cole doesn’t find that.  The book begins with him losing his family ranch on the death of his grandfather.  It ends with the exchange that leads this review.  Nobody knows where their true country is.

On this journey I’m on, I stopped in Columbus, Georgia to talk with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center and a Texas poet himself (interview coming soon).  We talked about McCullers who often talked about the homesickness of American artists.  Norwood said:

“[McCullers] says…what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.”

McCarthy is another poet of that spiritual isolation deep in the American soul.  But he embeds it in a rich constellation of relationships and within a creation of creatures.  If you can’t find the country in the land, perhaps you will see it in the eyes of all the pretty horses.